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Through a mass mailing and signs in a shopping center, a group headed by a major Key Biscayne landlord made a foray into the Key Biscayne charter referendum debate this week, asserting —without evidence—  that unnamed developers plan to build skyscrapers on the island. A tongue-in-cheek graphic shows a skyline of skyscrapers, including New York’s Empire State Building, superimposed over Key Biscayne, less than 1.4 square miles in size.  

Supporters of the proposed charter change said the allegations are baseless and amount to fear mongering. They argue the charter revision to zoning changes in Amendment 4 is needed to address sea level rise as the island maps out $250 million in various resiliency projects. 

The group putting out the mailing, Preserve Our Key Biscayne, was founded by Commodore Realty CEO Max Puyanic in 2006. 

But the history of Puyanic’s interactions with the village suggest another motive might be in play.

In 2013, Puyanic, whose company owns and manages several shopping centers across the state, wasn’t worried about over-development, letters to village officials show. To the contrary, he was pro-development — of his own properties. He fought a pitched battle with village officials who he accused of planning to rezone the entry block property or use eminent domain powers to take it. 

Then, as now, traffic was a big concern, current and former officials say. 

Puyanic had been planning a 60-year lease for a new Walgreens. He relied on the island’s current zoning code to go ahead with the controversial project, writing “The store is clearly within the zoning code and seeks no variance,” in a letter to an appraiser the Village hired to consider buying the property. In a letter to then-Mayor Frank Caplan, he accused the village and its staff of “working diligently to devalue the property.” 

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The Village Council eventually approved the Walgreens the following year after a five-hour meeting that ended at 1:30 a.m., Miami Today reported. But the council imposed traffic restrictions preventing most vehicular access from adjacent Harbor Plaza. 

Another year passed, and the parcels —once home to Stefano’s nightclub and a La Carreta—  sold for $15 million. Today, the land remains an undeveloped grassy field whose value has dropped, said Council Member Ed London, a developer. 

“It’s a terrible site for retail,” London said, because it now only has access from Southbound Crandon and residents have to leave the village, turn around, and come back to enter it. 

Debate over Zoning

In this year’s election, the debate over Amendment 4 on zoning has occasionally traversed into hyperbole, with candidates Fausto Gomez and Andy Herrera stating, erroneously, that the charter proposal would “take power away” from village voters on certain zoning measures.

In fact, the amendment does not stop residents from overturning a zoning decision through a referendum, but it would make it easier for the council to either tighten or loosen the zoning laws. That’s because most changes, whether restrictive or permissive, have to go to voters under the current law. And that can cut both ways. 

The proposed change, if adopted, would allow a future council to make zoning changes by a supermajority vote or opt for a public vote. Residents then could overturn that action through  a voter petition, which takes 10% of registered voters to place on the ballot, now about 815 signatures. 

Since the restrictive zoning provision was placed in the charter in 2007, there have been no use or density changes put to the voters, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been attempts. 

Previous zoning and use changes have had chilly receptions in Key Biscayne. In 2019, the Council took action to block medical marijuana dispensaries that would have been allowed under state law unless the council acted. In 2020, Council Member Ed London proposed letting voters decide on a new senior housing district, but several council members objected to a site on the Crossbridge Church property.

But in contrast, the current zoning code did allow a large redevelopment of the St. Agnes Church property, which has prompted some criticism that the existing code is too permissive. 

Construction at St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church towers over the Harbor Plaza shopping center, Oct. 28, 2022. The church redevelopment is allowed under Key Biscayne’s current zoning code, which supporters say is a prime example of why the Village’s charter on zoning needs revision. Opponents want to leave the current system, which makes changes difficult, in place. (KBI Photo/Tony Winton)

Members of the Strategic Vision Board amplified the weaknesses of the island’s current code in preparing a nonbinding report, saying new zoning should promote a walkable village that meets resiliency goals. It’s a reason, panel members said, that zoning needs to be updated through the charter amendment. 

The Preserve Our Key Biscayne group formed in 2006 and was administratively dissolved in 2012, state records show. It has not filed funding disclosures with the village, said Village Clerk Jocelyn Koch, a potential election law violation. Multiple messages left for Max Puyanic at his company were not returned.

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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.

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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow...